The physical manifestation of the concept of “hearth” dates all the way back to when the first primates made a fire and gathered around it to eat, tell stories, and build communities. From the start, these communities moved with the people who created them as human culture expanded across the globe, with some taking firm root in specific places where once-nomadic people stopped, looked around, and decided to stay put.
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The concept of hearth remains universal, even as the original physical version has (mostly) evolved. But what about the spiritual manifestation of the hearth, whether to an individual or their culture? What about the wider world that seems more and more fractured with every turn of the news cycle? Is there a concept of hearth that can possibly bring the global community together? These are questions co-editors Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor sought to raise, if not answer, with their latest collaboration, “Hearth: A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place," just released from Milkweed Editions.
At first glance, "Hearth" might seem like another in a long line of excellent, if predictable, anthologies of conservation-focused writers. Familiar names are here, beginning with editors Smith and O’Connor, two names recognizable to even the most modestly-read aficionado of writings on the American West (the duo have previously collaborated on the excellent book “The Wide Open: Prose, Poetry, and Photographs of the Prairie”). Writers contributing to "Hearth" include several illustrious names in the canon of such work; Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Gretel Ehrlich, Carl Safina and Bill McKibben, to name just a few. But that is where the similarities end.
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"Hearth" instead is an expansive collection of poems and stories on the concept of hearth as it relates to the entire modern world, with influences that extend much more deeply. The book is truly multicultural in its reach, with a stellar lineup of international contributors. Divided into three primary sections— "Heart," "Earth" and "Art" — it includes a fourth, center section of absolutely magnificent black-and-white photographs from Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s book “Genesis.” These images are a highlight of the anthology.
Elsewhere writers explore references to the hearth as intimate, personal space, while others expand them all the way to the cosmic. We find hearths in the crater of a volcano, in a cemetery, and even in a smartphone. The hope is that these myriad approaches to what the definition of a hearth truly is, or can be, will open up a wider conversation that leads to all of us contributing to making the world a more welcoming place.
The idea for the book was born when O’Connor, a staunch environmental and arts advocate, attended the opening ceremony of a gathering of cultural leaders on the rim of the Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawai'i. An elder named Pualani Kanahele led a traditional hula dance there, and later described her “hearth” as the volcano itself. This set O’Connor to reflecting on her own idea of hearth, and she took it up with Smith. It took a little convincing, but soon Smith, a writer and filmmaker who has written several books of her own, was on board with pursuing a book project based on O’Connor’s original inspiration.
"Hearth" is the culmination of a four-year process of reaching out to the global community of writers to solicit contributions. Smith and O’Connor realized early on, as their idea of what Hearth could be evolved, that they would need help. They enlisted the aid of several others to help find voices to contribute to the project. Barry Lopez, who contributes an excellent foreword to the book, was involved from the book’s early stages, and was a critical guiding voice in helping Smith and O’Connor think about the project in its broadest sense. Christopher Merrill, besides being a wonderful poet with a contribution to the book, is the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He helped connect the editors to many writers they would not otherwise have known about from all over the world. Finally, University of Hawaii professor of English Frank Steward, who contributed an essay, is also the editor of “Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing.” He was able to connect the "Hearth" editors to writers from that part of the globe.
Wrangling the contributions into a cohesive final product involved the key efforts of three other primary contributors. Vermont’s Helen Whybrow is a freelance writer and editor who is also an Editor at Large for Orion Magazine. She provided critical assistance in co-editing the pieces and envisioning how they fit together. Minette Glaser, owning a background working for organizations like the National Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, was overall project manager, keeping the book and all its pieces on track and moving forward. Finally, poet Sandra Alcosser, founder and director San Diego State University’s Creative Writing MFA program, served as consulting poetry editor.
From front cover to back, "Hearth" is a visually and intellectually stimulating collection, always beautiful, but equal parts uplifting and heartbreaking. In their effort to spark conversations about other possibilities — larger possibilities — for how we all relate to one another in our fractious global community, Smith and O’Connor have delivered an astounding, gorgeous first effort for what promises to be an ongoing discussion.